I regularly meet security managers who are convinced that traditional face-to-face training can’t be beaten, and that online training is nowhere near as good. And I also meet security managers who are extremely enthusiastic about online training and can see its huge potential for transforming the way we do training in the humanitarian and development sectors. This is a vital – and very live – debate about the future of security training.
So, who is right? I think they both are.
I’m going to take a dive into this fascinating topic to see if we can make more sense of it. Full disclosure – this is something I am passionate about, so prepare for a longer than usual blog!
Let’s start off with those who argue that online training can’t replace the traditional face-to-face approach. I understand where this argument comes from, and for many years I was of the same opinion. After all, this is how we’ve been doing most of our security training for the past 20 years, so it’s a big step to question whether this is still the best approach. Furthermore, there are lots of organisations who are heavily invested in the traditional face-to-face approach, so there is likely to be resistance to change.
Advantages of face-to-face trainings
Face-to-face training has many undoubted advantages. If done well, it provides an excellent ‘instructor-led’ intensive learning space. It can create powerful group dynamics during the training and – especially if it is a residential course – allows networking to happen naturally during the course itself and the evenings that follow. It allows for a lot of group work and sessions to practice new skills and knowledge. And face-to-face training is particularly strong when running simulations, such as those run during Hostile Environment (HEAT) trainings, when participants need to experience a close-to-real-life scenario.
It can also be exciting for participants to take a pause from their day-to-day work and attend a training with colleagues or strangers, where they can swap ‘war stories’, get to know fellow-trainees better, and learn from others how they manage security. If this involves a trip away from the participant’s work station to a capital city, or even to another country, it may be more attractive still. Whilst training like this is hard work, it can also be a lot of fun, and ironically it can even feel a bit like taking some R&R time if it gets you away from your day-to-day job. I remember attending the ICRC’s ‘Security & Stress’ course in Geneva when I was heading up the ICRC’s programmes in Aceh, Indonesia, and it felt good to take a week away from the prisons and International Humanitarian Law violations to which we were responding at that time.
Challenges of face-to-face trainings
So, face-to-face training is undeniably part of the training mix and has much to offer. But I’d argue that, now we know much more about how humans learn, the traditional way we have taught 3- or 5-day face-to-face training courses are no longer fit for purpose in the 2020s.
Why do I say this?
If we define learning as transferring information, skills, knowledge and attitudes to long-term memory so they can be accessed when needed (a definition widely used amongst education researchers), we find that traditional face-to-face training courses are not a very effective way to do this. Put simply, traditional training approaches do not create strong long-term memory traces and often leave only a ‘vague impression’ of learning a number of months following a training course. In other words, a few weeks after the end of the course trainees have forgotten the details of most of what they learnt. Three months later they might remember – although this is not guaranteed! – that they covered Risk Assessment during the training but will struggle to remember exactly what was covered in that session.
This certainly rings true for me following training courses. I tend to complete courses full of enthusiasm for the topic. But after returning to work, where I find 200 unread emails, 50 of which are important and urgent, I soon find myself overwhelmed and distracted by day-to-day issues, and rapidly start to forget the detail of what I’ve learnt.
If you are sceptical of this argument you can easily test it for yourself. Ask participants to take a written ‘test’ on what they learnt during a training course three months ago and see how much they remember. Don’t make it multiple choice (life doesn’t work in multiple choice!), just ask people to write down what they remember and compare it against the curriculum of the training. I can almost guarantee you that participants’ memories will be vague, non-specific, and rather weak.
We create the strongest memory traces in our long-term memories when we are exposed to ideas on a number of occasions over a period of weeks and months. Clearly, this is impossible for a traditional 3- or 5- day training to achieve – the training just isn’t long enough.
Traditional face-to-face courses also neglect other key techniques that encourage strong learning outcomes such as self-paced learning or checking knowledge with immediate feedback (and even if this is done informally on face-to-face courses, it cannot be done days, weeks, or even months after a session to see if it has been properly absorbed by participants). As a result, traditional training has very significant methodological weaknesses.
And there are also other challenges we face in the humanitarian and development sectors that traditional face-to-face training does not effectively respond to:
a). It is expensive, so organisational training budgets can only cover a limited number of people. This means that some staff are offered vital security training, and others are not. In some organisations this can split largely down national / international lines.
b). It can be time-consuming and logistically complex to organise (which training provider do we use? Do we need to get clearance for someone to enter the country? Is there a tendering process? Accommodation and transport requirements for the trainer and participants? etc.), meaning there can be internal resistance to organising security training – who needs another big job on their plate when they are already over-busy?
c). there can be resistance to pulling people away from their day-to-day work to attend face-to-face trainings, and individuals may drop out of trainings at the last minute for various reasons (essential deadlines; ill-health; family problems etc.)
d). If travel by plane is required to attend a training it is a non-environmentally-sustainable activity, and contributes disproportionately to the climate crisis. Many organisations are becoming ever more aware of the environmental impacts of their activities.
So, it’s clear that traditional face-to-face training has upsides, but also considerable downsides – from questionable methodology, to cost (and therefore reduced reach), complex logisitics, its impact on day-to-day work, and its environmental footprint.
So, what’s the alternative, and is it any better? To examine this question I’m going to look at online training as an alternative. And since online training can take many different forms I’m going to talk specifically about the multi-week online trainings provided by Crucial Safety.
Advantages of online trainings
I’m not going to argue that online training is better or worse than traditional face-to-face training, but I do think it offers something completely new and different, which is brilliant for certain types of training. It also responds to many of the concerns, above, raised about face-to-face training. In other words, it’s usually much cheaper for large numbers of staff to attend an online course, meaning more staff can be trained using a limited budget. It’s relatively easy to set up a ‘Crucial Safety-style’ online training. It doesn’t have to pull people away from their work station (assuming their bandwidth is good enough). And it’s doesn’t worsen the climate crisis. So there are considerable and important upsides to using an online approach.
Online training must be done creatively (and here I don’t mean endless zoom calls when participants are required to sit in front of their screens for hours and hours, and nor do I mean e-learning, which I have never warmed to). To be engaging it must use different approaches and should have strong elements of interactivity, where participants get to discuss and work with each other. It also needs to convey new knowledge and skills and this can be done well via webinars, bespoke videos and podcasts, documents, activities, assignments and other methods. The key is to mix these up so there isn’t an over-reliance on any one of them.
Using this creative approach, online training can ensure learning retention is much higher by using the best methodological approaches like learning over time, self-paced learning and regular knowledge checks with immediate feedback. Using small daily learning chunks we move away from the problematic ‘intensive’ learning model towards a longer-term and less intensive learning model – and, as a result, three months following the end of a course participants remember much more.
In fact, there isn’t even a clear ‘end’ to a course. Online trainings are on-going and present mini chunks of learning over a number of months, constantly and rapidly re-presenting key information and knowledge in new and interesting ways, whether that is films, podcasts, quizzes, activities or any of the other approaches mentioned above. The learning journey goes from static and time-limited in a traditional course to dynamic and on-going in an online course, and because participants are being regularly reminded of what they have learnt, the learning becomes part of their day-to-day work lives. The training ends not with a big fanfare, but when it tapers off at the end of the course, and the mini daily learning chunks slowly become fewer and fewer.
I think there is one key area where face-to-face training scores more highly, and that’s in the dynamics between the participants, the bonding that happens on a face-to-face course. This is challenging, but not impossible, to recreate in an online offering. We have thought hard about this, and on our multi-week courses we mix ‘formal’ learning (the videos, podcasts and reading) with ‘social’ learning (taking part in peer learning groups, or ‘learning pods’ as we call them). The social learning is a vital part of the online learning journey and allows participants to establish close relationships with colleagues and peers whilst ‘making sense’ of the formal learning they undertake. This is a highly successful approach.
So, we get to the end of this long blog. What’s the conclusion? Assuming that both are done well and professionally, I’d say that it’s difficult to compare the two approaches because they are quite different. It’s like comparing apples and oranges. The two are different things with different characteristics, and with different strengths and weaknesses. They offer different things.
However, I do think the days of traditional face-to-face trainings are rightly coming to an end. It’s just not an effective way to train any more. I think that online security training has a massive role to play in the future of our sector. And I think from a purely training perspective classroom-centred training – that mixes the best parts of face-to-face and online training – will become the gold standard of training over the coming years.
Thanks for reading – it’s been a long one! I hope it has brought forward some ideas that you might find useful.